How can we sanctify our on-line lives by acting according to our values? How can we use the resources on line to enrich our lives?

All of us are confronted with the rapidly changing pace of technological advancement and the way that it is fundamentally changing how we encounter Judaism, how we interact with our fellow human beings and even how we encounter the Divine. People spend more and more of their time on their phones, in front of screens, consuming information.

We can’t imagine what even the near future has in store. The specifics of the technology we talk about today will be dated within years. A phone is clunky. Soon we’ll be seeing it all through contact lenses or projecting it all in front of us from some necklace we’ll wear, perhaps activating everything with our voices. This discussion therefore takes a broader focus. Can we articulate values, principles and strategies that we can apply to ever emerging technological innovations?

Look no further than the 2017 RRC annual report video for allusions to the pitfalls of this readily available technology. It portrays lines of people, walking through life, staring at their phones, not interacting with one another. Increasingly, we can’t go long without mindlessly reaching for our phones, scrolling through the endless sea of e-messages, Facebook posts, Tweets and Instagram stories. Many of these posts are delightful, some of them are profound, but all of them seem to manage to suck up our attention. Our ability to just be is evaporating.

If our lives are being shaped by technology in ways both large and small, we must turn our attention to it and become proactive in shaping the culture that technology is creating. This is an essential teaching of Judaism: rather than simply being buffeted by the world we encounter, we can choose to take on intentional ways of understanding and acting that infuse our lives with holiness. It is urgent that we bring this awareness and this approach to our encounter with technology.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman: “How can we draw on our rich Jewish storehouse to valorize practices and approaches that will yield the most life affirming encounter with technology?”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman: “How can we draw on our rich Jewish storehouse to valorize practices and approaches that will yield the most life-affirming encounter with technology?”

We will focus on two questions:

(1) What does Judaism—the evolving civilization that it is—have to say about the evolving technological landscape in which we find ourselves? How can we draw on our rich Jewish storehouse to valorize practices and approaches that will yield the most life-affirming encounter with technology?

(2) How can technology work in service of our Jewish lives? Just as the printing press dramatically changed how we learn, how we communicate and how we daven, we’ve got to imagine how Jewish life will look 20, 50, 100 years in the future, and how we ourselves might contribute to that future. Some of the Jewish transitions in the past—the transition from the temple cult to the beit midrash; the transition from an oral tradition to a textual one—seem almost obvious in retrospect.

Nathan Kamesar: “We start from the premise that as Jewish leaders, we believe in the holiness of the Jewish project.”

Nathan Kamesar: “We start from the premise that as Jewish leaders, we believe in the holiness of the Jewish project.”

Our Firm Belief

We begin with a belief in the holiness of the Jewish project. We believe that leading a life meaningfully engaged with Judaism helps us to make meaning of the world around us, helps us to see the spark of divinity that infuses every corner of the universe, helps us navigate the world with decency and with respect towards our fellow human beings, and helps us lead lives as vessels of holiness. We look to our tradition—to the wisdom of elders who were not constantly inundated with Facebook feeds or Netflix Queues or Spotify playlists—for their sense of how they understood the world around them. What rituals, stories and teachings did they develop in the face of a world they didn’t totally know? Rabbi Jacob Staub writes:  

The words of religious teachers in each generation may reflect the cultural assumptions of their times, but they do not depend on those cultural assumptions, precisely because the subject of their teachings is that which transcends our limited abilities to express and comprehend.

Jacob Staub, “A Lost World,” unpublished chapter from a work in progress, p. 1.

In other words, the nature of the questions our ancestors wrestled with—existential questions about God and the universe; questions about developing a social compact with one another, how to treat the earth, how to treat the poor in their midst—the nature of these questions is so fundamental, so transcendent, that the answers to them are not discredited by emerging out of a different historical context. Perhaps the value of those answers is even buttressed by that fact.

Jewish Values to Guide Us

We believe, after the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan and others, that being Jewish enables us—even requires us—to be fully human and teaches us how. Being Jewish helps us to understand, from centuries of teachings in multiple voices, that being human is not about being solitary or even only tribal. Judaism teaches that we are deeply interconnected to all living creatures. With all of the agency we possess, we are a part of and are responsible for the well-being of other living creatures and for the planet as a whole.

What does it mean to be human, and how do we express our humanness—indeed, our humanity, in this age of rapid technological transformation? This is where Jewish wisdom, old and new, can aid us.

Part of our work might be to generate a values-based guide for Jewish practice around the internet, beyond halakhic filters employed by members of the Haredi community or halakhically driven ones.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Ki gerim hayitem (remember that you were strangers) and how this teaches us the importance of empathy

  • Kol yoshvei tevel arevim zeh bazeh/Our deep interconnectedness

  • Ahavah rabbah/There exists an expansive universal love we can draw upon

  • Shabbat/shvitah

  • Panim el panim/Buber’s principles of genuine dialogue

  • Leshem shamayim/Importance that arguments must be for the sake of Heaven

  • Kavod/Ethical privacy practices

  • Tzedek tzedek tirdof and tikkun olam/Pursuit of justice

  • Im shamoa tishama/Sacred listening

  • Sicha brit/Covenantal conversation

  • Tzelem Elohim/We are each created in the Divine image

  • The importance of kedushah/Holiness

  • Tokhehah/Sacred rebuke

Among this list of Jewish values that should inform how Jews can make our way through the world, we begin by highlighting tzelem Elohim (we are all created in God’s image); ki gerim hayitem (remember that you were strangers); tikkun olam (the world is broken and it is our task to repair it); and ahavah rabbah (there exists an expansive universal love we can draw upon). It is essential to raise up a universal ground of being and remember what we gain by acknowledging and embracing this.

The Value of Interconnection

Technology both aids us and hinders our efforts to achieve deep interconnection and mutual interdependence. Deborah came out as a lesbian in supportive communities in New York City and Philadelphia in the 1990s, when the rate of attempted suicide among LGBT youth was up to four times higher than their peers. Today, the Internet has enabled queer youth to find virtual community where no physical communities exist (see, for example, the Trevor Project, though some are concerned that online bullying has offset any improvement. Data shows that online addiction-recovery programs are as effective as face-to-face meetings. Examples of online activism that changes our world abound every day. And yet we are too often more connected to the avatar on the screen than to the person with a pulse sitting next to us. There’s an image from Israel we love that points to the inherent tension in how technology is playing out in our lives:

The text is Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for Adam/man to be alone.” The image comes from the 929 Project, which provides cultural and religious resources for study groups to read one chapter of the 929 chapters in the Hebrew Bible every week—largely by means of an online portal.

Technology does bring people closer together. Nathan was part of a class Deborah taught, when a classmate joined in via teleconferencing as they recovered from surgery, and some rabbinical students studying in Israel occasionally take classes offered in Wyncote. We regularly participate in meetings of the Reconstructionist plenum, where we are engaged in simultaneous telephonic conversation with congregational leaders from across North America, and we’re getting ready to move to videoconferencing. Our Reconstructionist Learning Networks convene folks from around the world on topics both practical and spiritual, using technology ultimately to transcend it and forge meaningful connections and conversations.  Many congregations stream their Shabbat and high holiday services so that folks who are housebound or traveling can participate in the religious life of their communities.[1]And, at least on the high holidays, many folks watch who do not belong to the congregation—some of whom otherwise would.  Here is technology as disrupter again. In our pursuit of connection, technology is both helpful and harmful.

Committing to Civil Discourse in Our Web Behavior

The Internet is often a nasty place, in which disagreements quickly degenerate into personal attacks, and writers forget to be nice. Comment sections, Facebook threads, Twitter feeds—all of these provide ample opportunities for exchanges on a range of topics: sports, politics, religion. And as the stakes get higher and our egos get implicated, along with our desire to “win” an argument or show our allegiances, the discourse sometimes seems to fray.

At RRC, Nathan studied with Rabbis Amy Eilberg and Daniel Roth in their course “Rabbi as Rodef Shalom,” (Rabbi as Pursuer of Peace). Among other materials, he studied Rabbi Eilberg’s book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace. In it, she cites the famous Mishnaic dictum that, “A controversy for the sake of Heaven [makhloket l’shem shamayim] will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.” Eilberg goes on to define an argument as sacred

to the degree that parties comport themselves with seriousness, dignity, and respect, honoring the matter at hand and all persons engaged in the dispute. And further that righteous debate arises from the intention of the parties to explore important issues, to learn from others about weighty truths, even to discern the will of the Divine.[2]She goes on to cite Martin Buber as having six principles of genuine dialogue: (1) Awareness of the other’s humanity; (2) Acceptance of the other as different from ourselves; (3) Intentional … Continue reading

Whether or not we would frame the concerns of online dialogue exactly like this, it seems important that we try to conduct ourselves as exemplars of engaging in makhlokot l’shem shamayim in our cyberspaces. When discourse can quickly turn nasty, and our desire to win can get the better of our desire to see the other as a person (whom it is especially hard to see given that they are not in front of us directly, but rather on their device miles away), it is all the more reason to pause and try to cultivate the capacities based on teachings from our ancestors—teachings that remind us of the humanness of the other party or parties to our discourse. Even if we are not met halfway, we can lead the way. We’ve seen a rabbinic colleague of ours call for respectful dialogue in response to the political posts she makes. If Reconstructionists can help lead the way on continuing to promote civil discourse (or makhlokot l’shem shamayim), it will be no small thing.

Deborah has taken a different tack while promoting civil discourse as one of her urgent priorities since becoming president of RRC. The concept of “civil discourse,” she notes, draws from Enlightenment thought and presumes a degree of objectivity and neutrality in intellectual interchange. Jews frequently “translate” this concept into makhloket  leshem shamayim, as “controversy for the sake of heaven.” Unfortunately, this framing presumes argumentation and controversy. It both mirrors and intensifies the breakdown of conversation into argument, relationship into confrontation. Another conceptualization—drawing from the Shema, the central prayer in Jewish thought—is sacred listening (“Hear, O Israel.” “Listen up, Israel.” “Take heed.” “Pay attention.”). This is most powerfully paired with covenantal conversation; the recognition, born out of Jewish speech ethics, that, like God, we create whole worlds with words, and we can with intentional language join ourselves into webs of mutual connection and obligation.

Deborah is not on Twitter, even as she recognizes that it might help to advance her profile and that of the entire project of reconstructing Judaism. She knows that Twitter can be deeply poetic, like haiku (see, for example, Scott Simon’s tweets about the end of his mother’s life. But the Internet can be defined by immediate gratification, the lack of discipline, the lack of consequences. One thing that draws her to Jewish practice and to a Reconstructionist approach is the commitment to subtlety and nuance. She observes that it may be the rare person who can communicate substance in 140 characters. She is convinced by Bret Stephens when he swore off Twitter in the pages of The New York Times, writing that “Twitter [amplifies] ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought…and facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying.

Tokhehah/Sacred Rebuke

Nathan Kamesar: “when much of our communication is done online, our inevitably rebuke filled comments are not done with the benefit of being able to see the other person’s human features, or they yours.”

Nathan Kamesar: “When much of our communication is done online, our inevitably rebuke filled comments are not done with the benefit of being able to see the other person’s human features, or they yours.”

A related concept of our ancestors is tokhehah; sacred rebuke. It is bizarre and wonderful that our people developed a tradition around criticism. It comes from the verse in Torah: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him” (Lev. 19:17).

There is a suggestion in this verse that it is important to foster open hearts towards the other; acknowledge that if we bear ill-will rather than let it out in constructive ways, we will impair our relationships with our fellow human beings and act out against them.

This essay, which was intended to be published online, originally included a video clip of the comedian Louis C.K. talking about why he limits his children’s use of smart phones. Both Deborah and Nathan had thought of the clip as we were writing this part of the essay, and we were thrilled to be able to include multimedia in the original posting in September 2017. Over the following months, the #MeToo movement emerged to highlight the widespread and structural nature of sexual harassment, beginning with charges against major Hollywood figures, including Louis C.K. The discussion of whether and how to distinguish between artists and their cultural creations—or between public personae and private behavior—is challenging, complex and evolving. During a January 2018 discussion of this essay and this topic among rabbis, we reached consensus that we should leave the original reference in (we cannot and do not want to erase Louis C.K. from history); delete the link to the video (we do not want to be promoting him or his work, at least until he has done more meaningful teshuvah and shown greater awareness of his problematic behavior); and annotate our actions, both to show how culture change to promote greater justice is a work-in-progress and to remind ourselves to rewrite if and as appropriate.

Louis C.K. encapsulates the dangers of this, as only an incisive comedian can, in a past conversation with Conan O’Brien. He suggests that human beings—children even—are far harsher to people in their lives when they don’t have the opportunity to see how their words impact the other.

His commentary further highlights the incredibly human (and Jewish) trait of feeling empathy. When we cannot look the people we are criticizing in the eye—by our estimation a failure of Jewish notions of tokhehah (sacred rebuke)—we can’t see them as fellow human beings created in the Divine Image.[3]See, e.g., Exodus 22:21 “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We can’t see them become crestfallen or joyful. We can’t listen to them, as only someone present in the room can. We can’t make them feel truly seen or heard.

When much of our communication is now done online—through email, text or social media— our inevitably rebuke-filled comments are not done with the benefit of being able to see the other person’s human features, nor they ours: signals of empathy and gratitude, remorse and reassurance. They can come across colder and even heartless. Online communication initiates all the more need for us to turn to our ancestors’ wisdom regarding sacred rebuke.[4]The somewhat recent film, Up in the Air starring George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, highlights the pitfall. The main characters take to the road to fire people in the wake of the Great Recession of … Continue reading

Online communication produces billions of dollars for our economy, enables people to work from home so they can care for sick children and allows family members to stay in touch across thousands of miles. It is here to stay, and this is all the more reason for us to address what constitutes a thoughtful communication.

We know from experience that some messages we send can sound overly cold. So how do we address this? Send an emoticon in a business email? “No I don’t need that document, I need the other one.” Or, “No I don’t need that document, I need the other one.☺” We don’t think there are right or wrong answers to these questions, but as a higher percentage of our discourse takes place online, perhaps turning to our ancestors, who understood the importance of nurturing human relationships and reconstructing their wisdom for our times, is all the more imperative. Rabbi Roth extracts six principles from Maimonides’ teachings about sacred rebuke and adds another four. These include communicating gently and in a soft manner, and communicating in private, not in front of peers or others.

Respecting Privacy

The opportunities for turning to Jewish wisdom in cyberspace abound. Soon, the histories of our prospective politicians, colleagues, employees, classmates, teachers, dates, friends and so forth will all be searchable online. Increasingly, all of our public communications and histories are available with a few keystrokes to anyone who wants to see them: a spur of the moment Tweet we fired off without thinking; a baby picture; a selfie we didn’t take but find ourselves tagged in; a political post we wrote a decade ago; criminal records; driving records; credit scores; Internet search histories. Access to some of this requires more investigating than others, but all of it is increasingly digitized and compiled.

In A Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1: Everyday Living (Teutsch ed.) Rabbi Michael Fessler writes that, “The ease of violating others’ privacy through technology can constitute a violation of lifney iver lo titen mikshshol—‘do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” and further that, “The Jewish tradition has a strong presumption that one should not remind anyone of past failings. Doing so is called ona’at d’varim, oppression through words.” The Talmud teaches that when God prays, God prays that God’s attribute of mercy will overwhelm the attribute of strict justice (Berakhot 7a). When data become increasingly available to judge others, Jewish wisdom can teach us to prioritize mercy, understanding and respect of the other’s privacy and their desire to grow. It can, once again, help humanize technology.

Echo Chambers

Finally, technology both buttresses and undermines the very fabric of our civil society: how we get our news, and thus, what informs our vote and our participation in our democracy. Some 67 percent of Americans get news through social media, a number that was 49 percent five years ago. We know that Facebook, the most widely used social-media platform, uses an algorithm that dictates which items individual users will see on their feeds based on Facebook’s understanding of which particular items that user will want to see. (Will they be more likely to like pictures of food or articles about politics? Will they like left-wing articles or right-wing articles?) We know, then, that people often construct their understanding of the world based on articles that are most likely to appeal to their pre-established sensibilities.

These days, one of the most frequently cited biblical imperatives is tzedek tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” If “pursue” suggests anything, it is that we should take a proactive approach in our pursuit of a more just world. This includes seeking a wide variety of news sources whose veracity and pursuit of truth is real, and it includes helping disseminate these options to those for whom access may be more difficult. It may mean pressing companies like Facebook to think through the best ways to help people access true news. This is complicated in a world where claims of “fake news” abound, and in a postmodern world where notions of “truth” are all the more subjective. Still, we know our society is dependent upon an informed citizenry, and we know that just results are dependent upon making sure a citizenry basing their electoral decisions on evidence rather than empty rhetoric. The wisdom of our ancestors suggests we seek this out.

Shabbat: Withdrawal from Social Media

In addition to values, we add the practice of Shabbat, specifically the withdrawal from social media. Here is where Jewish wisdom is most convincing! Deborah considers herself thoroughly modern (if not postmodern): She uses electricity and drives on Shabbat. She may watch a movie as part of her Oneg Shabbat, enjoyment of Shabbat. But it is her commitment not to check email or Facebook over Shabbat that truly marks it as time unlike other time in her week—the kodesh (holy) distinct from the hol (ordinary). Whether she focuses on the people around her in synagogue or over a meal or at a social gathering or she just dives deeply into herself through meditation, a walk, a good book, the external framework that prompts her to put down the phone creates a sense of expansiveness that doesn’t exist in any other place or plane of her life. Many folks, including non-Jews, have written about the importance of a tech sabbath.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presciently wrote, 66 years, ago:

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization… is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

There is something subversive about upholding Shabbat in an age where the fruits of technology are so seductive. Perhaps our ancestors understood something intrinsic to the human condition: that every seven days our beings need to shut down. To refresh. To be.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman: “The practice of Shabbat and specifically the withdrawal from social media–here is where I am personally convinced of Jewish wisdom.”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman: “The practice of Shabbat and specifically the withdrawal from social media—here is where I am personally convinced of Jewish wisdom.”

Nathan observes that he gets some of his best thinking done in the shower. It is one of the few times of day when he does not have a device in front of him, or even a book. It allows all that he has learned, all that he has consumed, all that he has dwelt on, to cycle through his system, to process, to unfold. We need, he believes, that time to just be. That time for our inner workings to come to rest. To present themselves to us in a way we usually don’t allow for. Shabbat facilitates this in a holy way. Davening does, too, for him. The words of the Shema and the Amidah have become so ingrained in him, he observes that he doesn’t have to look at them or think about them as he utters them, and instead, his mind goes where it needs to go. He understands this isn’t exactly the idea of kavvanah, of intentionality, the ancient rabbis may have been going for, but he relies again on Rabbi Jacob Staub who writes:

Hasidic rebbes taught that when distractions arise during prayer, one should pray with one’s distractions rather than shooing them away. … The thoughts that arise out of left field, however unpleasant or unwelcome, often come from places deep within us, almost as if they are a gift from God, an invitation to look directly at them. It is as if they are a reward for getting our minds to settle down sufficiently in prayer, thus having allowed them to emerge from the shadows.

Teutsch D. A. (Ed.). (2011). A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 1: Everyday Living. Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press.

Shabbat and davvening help with this.

Educational Resources

We know technology can be an extraordinary educational resource, both in a surface-level way or in a deep way. We look at Wikipedia or myjewishlearning.com or, alas, Chabad.org when we want to check or occasionally learn about a particular Jewish topic. The Jewish website we use perhaps most often is Sefaria, which brings together and translates layer after layer of Jewish text. Sefaria is an extraordinary digital resource that sees itself as an outgrowth of indigenous Jewish interconnectivity rather than a disrupter. Deborah has frequently taught from BimBam (formerly Godcast). Some of our congregations provide individual tutoring in Hebrew to students via videoconferencing, and it looks like gaming is finally beginning to be developed for Hebrew instruction. A colleague of ours is writing a proposal on using virtual reality to transform Jewish education, which seems both thrilling and futuristic to Deborah. She has not yet tried virtual reality and wonders if she will get entirely hooked.

Ritual Resources

Religiously, technology is the most complex.  If Judaism (and, undoubtedly, most religious teaching) is about teaching us how to be human, then the benefits and disadvantages of technology are on full display in consideration of religion.

We use technology to support our religious life. Every morning Deborah chants Modeh Ani—I thank you, God, for returning my soul to me—using an app created by our colleague Rabbi Shefa Gold, who has set this line from the traditional liturgy to 49 different melodies. Then she meditates, using a secular app, Headspace. When she travels, she does not usually carry a prayer book with her, knowing that she can daven using a downloaded (Orthodox) virtual siddur. When she is creating rituals for life cycle ceremonies, she is frequently on our website Ritualwell.org, which has an average of 20,000 unique visitors per month/year.

Yet Ritualwell, which makes ritual resources available to everyone and partners with such innovative providers as Bimbam, also disintermediates the refining role that rabbis previously played. Sometimes, that is thrilling for her—look at all these people looking for Jewish knowledge and Jewish resources to shape their lives. And sometimes, that is sad or worrisome, as when she attends a DIY wedding or funeral and the officiant does not know how to “hold the space,” how to craft a ritual with a powerful beginning and ending that is ultimately transformative to the participants, that is confused in its theology or lightweight in its wisdom.

Siddur

The biggest technological question facing the Reconstructionist movement is what formats to use for the next iteration of the Reconstructionist prayer book. Kol Haneshamah, which is entirely “real” (that is, we hold it in our hands), has served us extraordinarily well for nearly 25 years, but we are already overdue to be thinking about the next prayer-book series that both reflects and shapes our religious vistas. There are many challenges. For example: Can we discern some gender neutral language in Hebrew? How do we adequately capture voices of diversity in our communities? The most significant issue, however, is the design choices we make from around digital usage in a way that both preserves continuity and allows us to move forward into the 21st century without sacrificing life-preserving Jewish values and practices.

Ultimately, design choices around digital usage is a small question that we are asking at a moment of social transition. The bigger question is indeed how to mobilize technology to help us be most fully human, activating the rich storehouse of moral resources in real time to help us live, decide, make agonizing choices. We have begun experimenting on Ritualwell with “ritual guides,” so that the searcher can interact with a rabbinic mediator to ask questions and possibly to establish a relationship. We are also making plans to digitize the three volumes of A Guide to Jewish Practice, so that the values-driven discussions contained within them are more accessible. Is there a way to bring those conversations to life in the moments when people most need them? We will be able to capitalize on it when that moment arises?

Imagine an app that allows people to play with the translation—all translations involve creative choices, after all—that allows particular communities to, in advance of Shabbat, select from among multiple different translations with different emphases or different sensibilities so they can formulate a theology that is both suited to their community and consistent with the searching for the divine and for meaning that our ancestors were undertaking. How exciting, and yet how complicated. What we would gain in customization, we would lose in uniformity, or even unity. If different communities use radically different versions of the siddur, do we begin to balkanize?

Grappling with the teachings of our ancestors should involve the highest degree of humility. Creative renditions of our ancient teachings ought to be carried forth with high degrees of sensitivity, carefulness and reverence. As Nathan’s father, Rabbi Daniel Kamesar, z”l, once wrote: “We can afford neither the arrogance to reject our tradition, nor the desperate fear which causes some to kiss its feet.” “A vote but not a veto,” is the phrase we most often employ.

Still, if we want to reach more people, we have to use language that they understand and idioms and metaphors they can relate to.

An Internet Kavvanah?

What about a scrolling kavvanah that we would utter before surfing the Internet or using social media. Jacob Staub observes that:

Reciting blessings … cultivates discernment—the ability to see through appearances to the mystery that underlies all things … What opportunity for holiness does this apparently mundane situation provide me? Noticing the blessings that inhere in things we might otherwise take for granted is an invitation to live in another realm of consciousness.

Teutsch D. A. (Ed.). (2011). A Guide To Jewish Practice Volume 1: Everyday Living. Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press.

The commandment in the first paragraph of the Shema, is a commandment to be mindful of the ubiquity of God’s presence. “When you lie down and when you rise up” instructs us to be generally mindful of these words at all times between awakening and retiring. Technology can help facilitate this. Whether this is an app on our phones that dings periodically to remind us of our covenant with the God of our ancestors, or a window on the corner of our laptop to remind us of it, there is no reason we can’t begin to implement new small pieces of technology to enhance our Jewish living.

What is a mezuzah if not a piece of technology invented to better facilitate “taking these words [i.e., the commandment to love God] to heart.” As we surf the Internet, we go through portal after portal, gate after gate. Our tradition teaches us ukhetavtam … b’sharecha. Inscribe the teachings that we are to love God with all our hearts upon our gates—presumably, in whatever forms those gates may take.

In these and so many ways, technology, if used correctly, can help us to be mindful of our relationship to the divine and to our people.

Here are two kavvanot that we have each drafted. Imagine reciting one of them before going onto the Internet.

R. Deborah Waxman:

I align myself to the Source of energy and inspiration who opens us to possibilities beyond our imagination and commit myself to using my time wisely. Weaver of interconnections, help me to be online for good and for growth. Ground of Being, let my awareness of the tzelem Elohim in every person permeate all my relationships, real and virtual.

Nathan Kamesar:

O Adonai. Today I will engage with wonders our ancestors never knew. In the blink of an eye, I will learn from someone halfway around the world. I will listen to music that will send my heart soaring. I will view glimpses of landscapes from all over the globe.

So, too, do I acknowledge this journey’s pitfalls. In immersing myself in this virtual world I may lose sight of the people right next to me. I may turn a blind eye to their pain. I may turn a deaf ear to their story. I may miss my connection with them.

Help me, Adonai. Help me feel the pull towards my fellow human beings. Help me connect to the Divine spark in all of them, be they right by my side or across the seas. Help me discern Your presence in all things. Help me keep Your Torah—Your Teachings—present in my mind, always. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be so.

Broadening the Audience

For starters—and most Jewish organizations are already doing this—we cannot cede the technology space. If people in the 21st century find ourselves spending time increasingly in front screens—laptops, phones, tablets—then that’s where we Jewish leaders need to show up. Failing to put out interactive content on sites like Facebook and Instagram would be like a campus Hillel failing to show up to table at the freshman activities fair or a synagogue failing to have a phone number or a website. That’s where people are, that’s how they’re finding you. You’ve got to be there to meet them.

Lee Rainie, the director of Internet and technology research at Pew Research Center, and sociologist Barry Wellman, authors of Networked: The New Social Operating System, writes:

In incorporating the Internet and mobile phones into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: more than the family, the work unit, the neighborhood and the social group.

With the world at your fingertips through your phone, you don’t necessarily need bigger institutions like synagogues or rabbinical schools to provide you with content (though they can still serve as seals of approval or content generators themselves); anyone can create content and anyone can consume content. Leaders are required to connect individuals one to another rather than to lead frontally. For religious leaders, imagine helping people meet hevruta (paired study) partners—acknowledging a contemporary tendency for individuals to seek to connect to fellow individuals.

Conclusion

The future is indeterminate. The key seems to be to keep asking: What is it about Judaism that remains compelling? It can be many things to many people: a pathway to the Divine,  a way of engaging with the Holy One of Blessing, and bringing holiness through Jewish rituals and teachings to every aspect of our lives, be they social interactions, the consumption of food, the rhythms of the year, building family and community life, working towards social justice and coping with cycle of life—its beginning and its end.

When we engage with technology it should be with this in mind. How does my use of this particular piece of technology help or hinder living a more Jewish life? Does it distort something at its core—like when I fail to look a loved one in the eye because I am too busy scrolling through my news feed—or does it amplify it—like when I listen to soulful Jewish music through my headphones.

May we all move forward, sanctifying our interactions with technology and harnessing technological resources to enrich our lives.

Behind the writing of Harnessing Technology, authors Rabbi Deborah Waxman and Nathan Kamesar in conversation

References

References
1 And, at least on the high holidays, many folks watch who do not belong to the congregation—some of whom otherwise would.  Here is technology as disrupter again.
2 She goes on to cite Martin Buber as having six principles of genuine dialogue: (1) Awareness of the other’s humanity; (2) Acceptance of the other as different from ourselves; (3) Intentional ‘turning toward’ the other (i.e., “wholeheartedly reaching for learning and connection in human encounter”); (4) Presence and authenticity; (5) Openness to being changed; and (6) Non-negotiable concern for dignity of both self and other, even in the midst of conflict.
3 See, e.g., Exodus 22:21 “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
4 The somewhat recent film, Up in the Air starring George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, highlights the pitfall. The main characters take to the road to fire people in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. Their company’s business model employs outside consultants to productively and efficiently execute layoffs. As a cost-saving measure, the company experiments with online firings (at least using videoconferencing). The inhumane nature of such a step, at a perilous time in a person’s life, is laid bare for all to see.